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How about a vote for our lungs?

Experts say our politicians lack the political will to tackle environmental issues — even though this should be top priority in Delhi

While campaigning outdoors in the heat of the summer, did our politicians ever stop to think about fixing global warming? Every year sees ever higher pollution levels, more toxic air and rising temperatures. Shouldn’t this have been one of the issues which decide people’s votes?

In the manifestos of the three top parties in Delhi, pollution does feature, but only in one — the Aam Aadmi Party, goes into details of what the solution can be. Also, all the three, including the BJP and the Congress, did not talk about this very harsh reality that each and every resident of Delhi deals with, during campaigning or in their election posters.

The reality of the Capital come winter will again be the choking of lungs – but do politicians not care because they think the voters don’t?

According to a report, in 2016, the highest PM 2.5 peak went up to 759 microgramme per cubic metre, which is 12.7 times higher than the standard. In 2017, the highest peak was at 686. The report by the environment Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority for Delhi (EPCA) and Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), pointed to the fact that the high peak in early October, at the onset of winter and then smog episode in early November, coincided with Diwali, crop burning Punjab and windstorms from western Asia.

Then in 2018 winter, the city saw pollution levels hit 654 on December 24, in some parts of Delhi. But every year, as can be seen, the city sees kneejerk reactions by the government.

In 2018, a day after Diwali, Delhi recorded its worst air quality of the year overall Air Quality Index (AQI), PM 2.5 was recorded at a whopping 805. The EPCA then halted construction, and closed industries powered by coal and biomass fuel and entry of heavy vehicles inside Delhi.

The AAP-led state government in its manifesto made Delhi specific promises, and to deal with pollution it took the same route. But yet again the fine line is that it comes under the ambit of “with statehood” …they will deliver. This includes 100% electric buses, vacuum cleaning of roads which would mean dust does not get kicked up every time its swept, and compliance with construction rules.

Presently though, things are not any better, despite the constant threat to life. Even government agencies flout rules for construction. One just needs to come across BSES excavation sites in places like Dwarka. There are huge patches with no covering which ensures all the dust enters the air and the road.

So, what does the BJP-led centre say in its manifesto? It talks about the things it has already done. Like, ‘evolving technologically’ and devices to map the level of pollution in cities and rivers. These they say have been “effective steps to reduce the level of pollution in major cities, including the national capital.”

What the party says it will do, if brought back into power, is converting the National Clean Air Plan into a Mission, and focus on 102 most polluted cities in the country. This “concerted action”, they say, “will reduce the level of pollution in each of the mission cities by at least 35% over the next five years.”

The Congress party, in its promises, also ‘recognised’ air pollution as a ‘national public health emergency’. It would “significantly strengthen the National Clean Air Programme in order to urgently tackle the problem of pollution”. And that “all major sources of emission will be targeted, mitigated and reduced to acceptable levels. Sectoral emission standards will be set.”

But both parties do not delve into the logistics of how this will take place in actuality. The only one which puts into perspective exactly what it aims to do for Delhi is, in this case, the AAP.

JP Dabral, an environmental activist based in Ghaziabad, says what’s required to counter Delhi’s hazardous state of pollution is political will. He does believe, though, that the present government has taken positive steps towards introducing electric vehicles in the country. The government aims to shift one-third of the petrol and diesel vehicles to electric fleet by 2030.

But the transition may take longer, as plans for the infrastructure that would be required for a largely electric fleet is still at a nascent stage.

Dabral also focuses on the need of solar panels in every home which would mean moving away from relying on coal powered electricity, another major factor of emissions.

“Every house must have a solar panel. They can have electrical bridge connection only for emergency but there should be a focus on solar panels”, he says. For this, he says, government should find new players to come in and design better technology.

Dabral, who quit his job in 1988 and left for the Himalayas, ended up as an activist, raising a voice against the Tehri dam transmission line in Uttarakhand. Here they were going to cut down 90,000 trees which he went to court against it in 2002. This action saved 85% of the trees, he says.

The importance of green lungs should be understood by Delhi as well, in the sense that it needs to plant and grow more trees.

“A lot has to be done about tree plantation”, even though, he says, Delhi may have a significant number of trees compared to other metropolitan cities.

“You need to remodel Delhi”, citing as an example Pandav Nagar, situated in East Delhi. “Instead of these individual homes occupying the land space, it should have highrises in 20% of the area where everyone can be rehomed”.  Then, 30% of the area can be covered with forest, which will become the lungs of the area. “Even if you have pollution, it can be compensated with lungs such as this”, and this is how, most JJ clusters and unauthorised colonies must be remodelled, he explains.

But what happens is vote bank politics, where the government appeases its voters who will initially have a negative reaction to such an initiative, Dabral believes.

The reality is, however, that most will not be looking at who can deliver clean air to Delhi’s lungs. Thus, which government comes through on May 23 will affect what happens again this winter. All our fates hang in the balance.

Already, winter in the capital is no more about cold winds, outdoor tea and walks in the park. It’s all about pollution, masks and staying indoors.